Ethics of images of illness, death and grief in the time of COVID-19

PIs: Rebeca Pardo and Montse Morcate
Funded by:Víctor Grífols i Lucas Foundation Grants in bioethics research

Length: 2020-2021

The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has been accompanied by the appearance of a new term “infodemic”, the use of warlike language that has already been decried by Sontag (2003) in response to other illnesses, and a flood of images that warrant special attention.

While the tallies of thousands of cases of ill people and deaths were shared with the public on a daily basis, the images that went with them were often a visual counterpoint bearing little or no relation to the more dramatic face of the pandemic. Indeed, controversy has been stirred up in a host of countries by the publication of images of tombs, caskets and mass graves, while many photojournalists have complained of the difficulty of doing their job and exercising the freedom of information.

Among the images that have shaped and are still shaping the pandemic, we have seen pictures of healthcare personnel, but practically more often when they come outside to applaud than in their moments of exhaustion or when they are hard at work. Patients have been seen when they were well again and leaving hospital between ranks of onlooking healthcare professionals. There have even been images of photography contests and displays on balconies and windows or examples of autofiction that have gained success on social media.

Against this backdrop, important questions arise in relation to images of illness, death and grief. Must we silence images that can discourage, offend or hurt the affected? Doesn’t this involve censuring what is happening? And if images do get published: which ones? And why? Are they necessary? Who decides whether they are appropriate or pertinent?

The aim of the project is to identify the different bioethical implications in the photographic representation of the pandemic in the media and thus spot the specific photographic narratives of the pandemic not only for the professionals involved but also for the public and images shared online.


e Barcelona


Rebeca Pardo
Universitat Internacional de La Rioja

Montse Morcate
Universitat de Barcelona